Michael McDonald: “Powering the Public to Draw and Evaluate Redistricting Plans”

The following is a guest post from Michael McDonald about his important project:

With the release of the Census Bureau’s redistricting data, redistricting is now upon us.

A number of organizations have been working on data and technology in anticipation of this moment, and we’re highlighting some of their efforts on Redistrict2020.org. Here, you can find selected redistricting plans with links to the canonical data source on official state websites and with links to these plans as they exist on PlanScore, DistrictBuilder, and Dave’s Redistricting App. We also provide links to summary redistricting activity webpages for each state on All About Redistricting and 538.

These efforts are the culmination of a quiet revolution in public access to redistricting data, mapping tools, and evaluation metrics, as my colleague Micah Altman and I describe in our Public Mapping Project book (electronic version is free). The general public now has access to the same data and tools that were previously available only to those who could bear steep resource and skill costs, such as state governments, political parties, and prominent good government and voting rights organizations. In one example of how public participation changes the game, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned a state legislative redistricting plans based, in part, by maps drawn by a music teacher using DRA.

While software engineers have designed these mapping and evaluation websites, the Voting and Election Science Team that I lead has been working across the country to collect and disseminate accurate precinct boundaries enhanced with election results for statewide offices. Without election data, it would be impossible to evaluate the political consequences of redistricting plans. As a by-product, VEST sometimes works with local election officials to produce precinct maps where previously none or highly inaccurate boundaries existed. Already, these data appear in a racial bloc voting analysis for Virginia’s Redistricting Commission and an analysis of the effect of the Census Bureau’s disclosure avoidance system on racial bloc voting estimates. A number of media organizations have used VEST data in their election coverage, including the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Nevada Independent, and KSN Television Wichita Kansas

An important reason we created Redistrict2020 is that we’ve done the work of loading redistricting plans and providing static links to these plans as they exist on PlanScore, DistrictBuilder, and DRA. While anyone can load a redistricting plan provided in a standard format into these sites, it takes some time and familiarity with data formats. It also burns a little computational time on these sites to load a plan into them. Providing static links saves a person who wishes to start mapping or link a news article or blog post to a plan as it exists on these sites some time and effort and will save these organizations a little money on computing costs.

To put a finer point on this, we’ve already encountered states that are not producing redistricting plans in an easily accessible manner that facilitates evaluation by these sites. In the past, my coauthors and I argue details such as mundane data formatting are strategies politicians use to reduce redistricting transparency and public participation. So far, we have successfully converted these plans into a standard format and are providing the resulting files on Redistrict2020 so that interested persons can import plans into their personal software. We encourage all legislatures and commissions to help us and the public by releasing plans in a format that lists all census blocks and their associated districts. This ensures that we have the most accurate assignments of census blocks to districts.

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